THE VILLAGES, Fla. -- It’s been nine years since the trial that nearly killed John Vai.
He sat for depositions by church attorneys who called him a greedy liar and accused him of enticing the priest. He saw a secret he’d spent 40 years trying to forget splashed across the pages of his hometown newspaper. In a Delaware courtroom, over six weeks, he laid bare the details of his sexual abuse as a teen by the Rev. Francis G. DeLuca, a religion teacher at St. Elizabeth’s in Wilmington.
He became so angry, so manic, his behavior so erratic, his children stayed far away from him. He stopped sleeping.
The landmark jury award was hard won: $3 million from the parish and $60 million from DeLuca, though the destitute former priest was unable to pay. He was defrocked in 2008 after a conviction for molesting a relative.
The money sits in an investment account. Vai won’t touch a dime of it.
“It’s tainted,” he said, “blood money.”
And in the end it wasn’t worth it anyway, he said.
“The attorneys told me, if we win one lawsuit it’ll be like a game of Jenga, the rest of the blocks will fall and we can move on from this,” he said. “Did we make any change? I don’t know. I don’t think so. I've come to the conclusion, we didn't win the game. We just scored a couple of points.”
Almost a decade later, at age 67, Vai spends his summers on the shores of Fenwick Island in Delaware and his winters in central Florida. He wakes up each morning at 5 a.m. He plays golf, swims in the pool at the local country club, flips burgers on the patio grill, sips a rum-and-grapefruit cocktail when the sun dips down past the palm trees.
"Get into a routine and the pain goes away,” he said.
Vai grew up in a working-class neighborhood of Italian immigrants and their American-born children, and the Catholic Church was its heartbeat. As a boy at St. Elizabeth’s, Vai was told he was destined for the priesthood. “I was the chosen one,” he said. And so, he kept quiet.
“If I said something my world was done,” Vai said. “You man up, you shut up, you move on.”
It worked, Vai said, except for the angry outbursts, the nightmares, the anxiety he didn’t understand. But one day Vai, a project manager, was on a site with contractors when he opened a newspaper and saw DeLuca’s name and picture, attached to an article about another survivor suing the diocese over sexual abuse.
“I remember getting in my car and driving to the end of the massive development, and that was the first time I really cried,” he said.
It was the guilt, he said, that pushed him to call a lawyer.
“I don’t think I’ll ever get over the shame of not coming out and telling someone and taking that risk. Never,” he said. “That’s a bridge I can’t cross.”
He did what he could, for himself and for other victims, at great personal cost.
“I told the truth. I went public. I took hits from my friends and family. I went to court. I went to trial and did a hell of a job,” he said. Vai served for two years on a committee to monitor the Wilmington diocese after it declared bankruptcy. “What more could I do?”
“I thought I could get rid of these demons. But when it's all over, you still got the demons,” Vai said. “I can't get my sanity back. I can't get my Christianity back. I can’t get my children’s lives back. I can't get all these years that I lost. It just doesn't work that way.”
When he decided to share his story publicly he stopped speaking to lifelong friends. It was too painful, he said, too humiliating: He didn’t want to risk the same judgment he got from some steadfast Catholics who remained loyal to the church, including his mother.
“She said, ‘Just don’t involve me or my friends,” he said.
And so Vai doesn’t share much with new acquaintances; poolside banter is deep as it goes. He tries to stay calm, steady, neutral. Joy isn’t what he’s after anymore.
“I’ll never be happy,” he said. “It’s just gone.”
Stability, a routine, is what he needs to survive.
“The devil’s still down there trying to draw me back,” he said, tipped back in a pool chair, his wraparound sunglasses shading his pale blue eyes from the blinding morning light. “If I don’t give him anything to grab onto, I’m OK.”
The Associated Press produced this project with support from the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G. Buffett Fund For Women Journalists.